Tuesday, December 10, 2013

La solita cosa italiana: Tradition and The Great Beauty

Before it's about anomie, sex, death, politics or ennui, Italian film is about Italian film. I've heard this called "an Oedipal struggle," which you can take or leave, but the point is that the upper tier of the film industry in Italy is probably unique in the amount of energy it expends on its ongoing conversation with itself. Every composition, every soundtrack, every personality, every haircut, mustache and pair of glasses is fair game for appropriation, as if every filmmaker were a shade of Robert Altman. The hero of Nanni Moretti's Caro Diario visits the site of Pier Paolo Pasolini's murder. The prostitute protagonist of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria is named after the virginal heroine of Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria. The antihero of Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style, played by Marcello Mastroianni, attends a screening of La dolce vita, whose hero is also played by Marcello Mastroianni. It's a common domain of symbols as much as an industry.

Since the 80s, though, the ouija-like movements of these symbols have inscribed a story of decay—not catastrophic, but definitely pervasive. Both the auteurs and the Auteur are dead, movie attendance is down, and Cinecittà, the studio where Fellini built whole city blocks for La dolce vita, is largely disused. Moreover, the industry has increasingly cut itself off from the domain of symbols to which the auteurs devoted so much attention. Over the last three decades, Italy's international successes—mostly sentimental dramas like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful and Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room—have been what the Italian film critic Pino Farinotti calls "solitary efforts", disconnected from the tradition. Stirrings of rebirth—Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah and Nanni Moretti's impossibly well-timed Habemus Papam have all been critical darlings in the last few years—are therefore met with what might seem like an inordinate amount of jubilation. Everybody, the Italians as much as the foreign press, wants a return to greatness.

It's important to understand this if you want to grasp Paolo Sorrentino's new movie, The Great Beauty, as anything but an arty trip through the lives of the decadent Roman elite, because a return to greatness is exactly what Sorrentino is promising. Sorrentino's breakout movie, Il divo, earned him not only Italy's first Cannes Jury Prize since 1962 (!) but also a strange kind of mandate. The film's resistance to the conventions of kitsch and chamber drama, its treatment of history as a kind of myth, and its frantic editing style staked a claim in the visionary lineage of the great Italian auteurs. Sorrentino had earned access to the same symbolic domain as Fellini and Antonioni; now, with The Great Beauty, we get to see what he's done with that access. 

As you might expect from a movie made under that kind of scrutiny, The Great Beauty is not only a movie in the high old style but also a movie about the high old style. The story of Jep Gambardella, an aging writer from the May '68 generation, The Great Beauty comes on like a The Artist for Italian modernism. The sweeping crane shots and choreographed dolly moves are only the beginning; the movie mimics the Italian classics in realms as cognitively subtle as its sound (voices feel uniformly close to the listener, as if they were dubbed, which was the standard for all Italian movies until the 70s) and its editing (we cut in and out of single gestures and expressions, like Fellini loved to do). Homages to the Italian pantheon are ubiquitous in Sorrentino's Rome: we pan over the Roman skyline as in Rome, Open City, a man jumps into the Tiber like Franco Citti in Accattone, a priest swings on an unearthly swing like Alberto Sordi in The White Sheik.

The writing, however, is less eclectic in its influences; it's fairly clear that Jep is an incarnation of Marcello Rubini, the hero of La dolce vita, and the movie keeps a closer ear on that than on any other resonance. Jep and Marcello are part-time writers and full-time socialites, struggling with cynicism, as they encounter a recurring cast of grotesques on a journey through a Rome whose contemporary vulgarity can't measure up to its beautiful past. Their titles mirror one another and are similarly equivocal, although Sorrentino's doesn't have the same branding potential for gelato places. (A gelato place called La Grande Bellezza had better be pretty fucking good.) Sorrentino is going right for the big one: this is Berlusconi's La dolce vita.

Pertinent differences, however, seep into the movie: Marcello's aesthetic failure becomes Jep's intellectual success and Marcello's weaselly cowardice becomes Jep's weary authority. Jep is a mirror image of Marcello, a version of Marcello who got everything he wanted (although, as Sorrentino shows, it doesn't really matter in the long term). This mirroring carries through to the movie's plot, which starts to feel like the other end of La dolce vita: the death of Jep's first love starts a journey at the end of which he reawakens to a modest kind of hope.

Of course, it doesn't really matter whether or not Jep the man emerges from his thirty-year depression; his thoughts are pretty inaccessible anyway. What matters is whether or not Jep the Embodiment of Italian Cinema emerges from his thirty-year depression, whether or not he's capable of imagining something outside his Fellinian gloom. You'd be justified if you thought this sounds disquietingly like Harold Bloom; after all, it's an Oedipal struggle.

Insofar as it dramatizes that struggle, The Great Beauty is an astonishing success, but the movie itself questions to what extent that success is worthwhile. Is it a struggle worth conducting? Is it worth making a movie in the high old style? Pino Farinotti has to write about movies that "make 'Italian cinema history'" in Tao Lin-esque scare quotes, and Jep Gambardella himself laces the human-condition speech that closes the movie with blah-blah-blahs. Working in the tradition of Fellini means employing a received idiom, an old language that may have lost all connection to the real world, and Sorrentino's movie is more an exorcism of that idiom than a vote in its favor.

This preoccupation with period style doesn't excuse the film for its misogyny. Sorrentino treats women like scrollwork, decorative or symbolic elements on the periphery of the text who only influence the narrative when they're naked. People seem to have waved that away as an entrenched problem in Italian cinema, but that seems based on a cartoonish level of misunderstanding—recall that the 60s gave us, to name a few, Mamma Roma, Seduced and Abandoned, L'eclisse, Bitter Rice and La strada, each of which on its own sets a high bar for female characters that Sorrentino has failed to meet pretty disastrously.

In fact there are intimations of another movie, underneath all of the Fellinian stuff, whose style differs pretty wildly from the upper strata. Slow-motion camera, neon colors, low-key lights, and recurring motifs like drunk salarymen all suggest an idiom more engaged with the contemporary world than the one Sorrentino has adopted, an idiom that, while acknowledging its influences, keeps them at defamiliarized distance, like the tourists Jep praises. I loved The Great Beauty, but I'm waiting for a Great Italian Film in that idiom.

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